In Brussels, at the Palais des Beaux Arts, my father gestures at the photograph of two men positioned in profile, two shades of skin, one standing behind the other, one bald head an echo of the head in front, one nose of the other nose, one chin of the other chin.
And, here is a different man. Bound. The dark lines of rope pull his wrists into an X above his head. In the curve of his torso—how he twists against the burden of himself, belly concave—I see the shadow of a saint tied to a tree. A viewer might say the man is a martyr to desire. If there were arrows, he would welcome the piercing.
Elsewhere in the retrospective, I stare at a series of self-portraits, the artist not quite handsome, but the eye can’t stop regarding him, Mapplethorpe in denim or leather or stripped down to flesh, an old Polaroid camera held so that it rests on the base of his slack cock.
I am almost seventeen. I haven’t yet encountered a penis beyond the movie screen or the page. It will be nearly a year before I touch the delicate surface of one—that of my first college boyfriend, the two of us feeling around in the dark of his dorm room, trying to fumble his body into mine. It’s Halloween. I am dressed like a salesgirl from the Gap, plaid button-down, khakis, a blue-and-white nametag that I have made from a safety pin, Scotch tape, and a cut piece of notecard affixed to my shirt. After, he tells me, you were very tight. I’m already feeling sick from the glass of vodka and orange juice that I swigged—to loosen up, as it were—right before he unrolled the sad droop of the condom and held himself above me, stiff-armed. Hearing very tight, I know I’ll break up with him as soon as I can find an excuse.
Very tight. I step away from these words. Then I’m on the Internet, reading an article about shitty men in media. I click on a link, follow it to other pages. Click. Click. And there’s the name of my first college boyfriend on a spreadsheet, accused of sending women “unsolicited dick pics.” I have barely thought of him, until I typed very tight today. But, here he is, in this online document with a disclaimer at the top. Later, I read a social media post written by a young woman he attempted to seduce via text. I’m a self-destructive person, he tells her. At last, I understand the blurred inaccuracies of the picture this man took in his imagination when we faced one another in the crumpled sheets, why he blamed me for our mutual failure to move smoothly together, both of us virgins. You were very tight.
Very tight. What does that mean? Too small an aperture to let in light. Synonyms for aperture: slit, slot, hole, opening, gap, crack. Hearing very tight, I know I’ll break up with him. So, perhaps he was right—there was no room for his wants inside of me. And I suspect what he wanted was to be shot from heroic angles, chiseled and hard as one of Mapplethorpe’s subjects.
But, for now, I’m still in a room full of images of penises. One dangles from the open fly of a polyester suit. Another is laid on a marble block like a sirloin steak about to be sliced. There are weights suspended. There are knots cutting off circulation.
If I stare long enough at the pictures, the penises become shapes beautifully arranged. They are balanced compositions, their chiaroscuro no different from the melting shadows and luminosity I once observed with my father in Kraków on the hand of da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, the animal sleek in her arms, dark and light paint blended together like smoke. Sfumato the technique is called.
In a different room, the sudden greens and yellows of Mapplethorpe’s flowers are beautiful too. But aren’t they, my father observes, somehow less compelling in their technicolor pigments. I suppose he is right. My sight can’t adjust to the mauve orchid arching its stem against the mouth of a glass vase. Erotic, yes. But the spiraled petals of lilies and gaping-mouth poppies seem to lack the tension of all those grayscale nudes Mapplethorpe shoots with such intimacy and detachment.
On another weekend, my father and I take the train from Brussels to Amsterdam so that I can visit the Vermeers at the Rijksmusem. My father wants me to see how small the paintings are in person, how light is emitted from such diminutive canvases.
Over coffee and chocolate desserts, we discuss what we have seen. A sealed letter held in a woman’s worried hand. Brass nails on the back of a leather chair. A wicker basket. A map of the Netherlands. Some bread torn apart. The blue folds of a skirt. Pearls.
Once, we take the train to Paris. In the dining cart, a waiter addresses me as Madame, smiling as he hands me the menu. The French, after all, are open-minded about these matters. My father corrects him. Non, he says, makes a point of saying ma fille. It is the first time I have been mistaken for someone’s wife. Or mistress. I can picture how I must look sitting across from my father. We both have dark hair, but perhaps the family resemblance is only really apparent when we smile, our faces making the same deep lines around the mouth and eyes. Perhaps, when the waiter serves us plates of smoked salmon he sees only an older man. A very young woman.
At the Musée d’Orsay, my father—who was once a professor of classical French literature and who has never lost that way of speaking that sounds as if he is writing the chapters of a textbook in his head—teaches me the proper pronunciation of the name Degas. Some of the rooms are nearly black, light carefully monitored so as not to damage the oil and pastel planes. So much color and illumination in these darkened spaces. Dancers curtsy or tilt en pointe, their tulle skirts airy swirls, pale clouds about their bodies, arms and legs stretching diagonally across canvases to convey the blur of movement.
Earlier I wrote that at almost seventeen I have not yet encountered a penis beyond the movie screen or the page. I’m omitting something from childhood (was I three or four?): the time I walk in on my father peeing. Get out, he says. Even as he reaches across the space to slam shut the bathroom door, I am already backing away, having taken in the essential details. The stream of piss arcing into the toilet bowl. The plucked chickenflesh of skin.
To include this small memory or not?
Let me think as a photographer might. I can take a picture then crop it, choosing to leave out some portion of the image for the sake of an elegant arrangement.
In fact, the most important part of this memory is my father’s voice. Get out. The words are a slap, sharp and hard. I have done something wrong. The child should turn her face away from the nakedness of the father. And, by this logic, the essay she writes should place a cloak over the revealed places, the eye drawn instead to the luminous folds that language makes.
As an adult, describing the Mapplethorpe retrospective in Brussels, I’m surprised by the responses of other people. I love that story, says my friend James. My friend Yerra tells me the story is extraordinary. I have never thought of this memory as story; it has no tension, no rising action, no denouement. Is it a story to say that my father and I went places and looked at things? That we spoke to one another through the art we contemplated together? Movies with subtitles. An opera by Wagner. Exhibits at museums in great cities.
In Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe, philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto explains that “[t]he content of the work is often sufficiently erotic to be considered pornographic, even by the artist, while the aesthetic of its presentation is chastely classic—it is Dionysian and Apollonian at once.” The wildness of bullwhips and ball gags is balanced against the lyrical lines of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, bodies posed to seem more like stone than flesh, eternal as Greek sculpture, brightness falling across carved planes of thigh or abdomen.
Seen this way, I can understand why it isn’t remarkable that my father took me to the Mapplethorpe retrospective when I was a teenager, my father a man deeply uncomfortable with the vulnerability of skin. Get out, he keeps saying in my memory.
Grown up, I often find myself explaining that I had a Victorian childhood, by which I mean I was raised as a tiny adult. I attend my first ballet before I am old enough to start kindergarten, am taught how to shake hands with ambassadors, am skilled at holding my utensils in the European manner, fork in my left hand, knife in my right. But, unlike the Victorians, my parents are not corseted or buttoned-up about my education. I am permitted any book from any shelf I can reach. This might mean Madame Bovary, the torn pieces of a letter dropped from the window of a moving carriage. Or else, some novel by Larry McMurtry whose title I’ve forgotten—what I remember is the scene in which a woman asks a man to make love to her using only the bulbosity of his big toe. I am taught that bodies represented in language or brushstrokes are not, in themselves, obscene. Rather, weak thinking offends. Stupidity. Bad art.
And the mind—agile and flexible in its responses to exquisite shapes displayed within glossy frames—becomes the central organ of desire. Art is a composed thing, real life unbeautiful. More than the creases around my eyes and mouth, I have inherited this way of looking from my father. I, too, am often more interested in the lovely configuration than in the messy fact of a real body. I, too, might say get out, if someone were to walk in on my nakedness.
I could end this essay with more shots of penises. The huge one I see in my twenties, a wall of penis, I call it. What was that guy’s name?
Or a few years ago, the college student whose door I knock on. The crushed beer cans of a party he threw the night before are still scattered all over our neighborhood. My friend James and I stand on the front stoop, knocking and knocking. When the student finally answers the door, his penis hangs from his open fly, soft-boned as a newborn animal. Before we can talk, you need to zip up, I tell him, turning my face away and gesturing in the vague direction of his crotch. Then he tries to shake my hand. Later, James and I laugh, the mouse was out of the house.
All the disappointments of penises, that flaccid or hard makes little difference, always a man looking for the best angle, the light that will make him beautiful to himself and to others, lying on a bed, his face opaque, one hand behind his head, the other gentle on his chest, and his cock assertive and flushed. I could end with you were very tight. Or even with the shame of saying, get out.
I would rather end with my own body. I would rather move to the room where the pictures of pink and purple flowers are asking to be reexamined. Perhaps, their colors and shapes are more compelling than I was first told. If I were to have my picture taken by Mapplethorpe, it would be clothed, like one of those close-up portraits he took of celebrities, cerebral, confident. I would be the woman utterly comfortable in the way she leans against a white wall in a white shirt, a blazer slumped over one shoulder, and she looks directly into the camera, the camera’s eye, until it blinks.